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Children's Miracle Network Celebration Themed FSI

How I Miss the Old Children’s Miracle Network Telethon

Children’s Miracle Network, the giant charity that raises money for 175 children’s hospitals in the United States and Canada had its annual telethon this last weekend, such as it is.

They don’t call a telethon any more; haven’t called it that for perhaps 15 years. But still I miss it.

Of course this is just personal nostalgia. I wrote the old-school Children’s Miracle Network Telethon for five years, and so I was intimately involved with its production.

My first CMN Telethon featured Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald and they sang a kick-butt version of the Doobie Brothers’ hit “What a Fool Believes,” which they co-wrote and for which they won a Grammy Award. I don’t know how it looked and sounded to the TV audience, but my mind’s eye will never forget watching them live from the outdoor stage at Disneyland’s Videopolis!

That night we kept a skeleton audience who stayed for a long list of comedy performers do sets right on the floor of Videopolis. Buried among them was Jeff Foxworthy.

The next day, a Sunday, we had a visit from Pele, whose soccer career was long over. Still you can bet that I snapped a picture or two. Wish I could track those down.

The show’s hosts included the affable and talented John Schneider, whose career is enjoying a revival, Marie Osmond, Entertainment Tonight’s Mary Hart, Las Vegas impressionist Rich Little, Olympic Gold Medalist Mary Lou Retton, NFL Hall of Famer Merlin Olsen and 2/5ths of the Fifth Dimension, Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr.

That year CMN had a themed-FSI that was as thick as your wallet, it had so many packaged goods sponsors. Now the CMN Celebration FSI (see above) is basically a shell.

The CMN Telethon looked and felt different than anyone else’s. Part of that was because it was shot outside under the California sun. Plus, we could never get the number of acts that Jerry Lewis got for the MDA Labor Day Telethon. So we ended up programming hours like the ‘National Parent’s Poll;’ shows within a show that weren’t based on entertainment at all.

I don’t have the numbers in front of me… and CMN has long since quit publishing this kind of information… but the Children’s Miracle Network Telethon was growing at least 20 percent a year back then. They had 220 or so stations in the U.S. and Canada that carried the Telethon, most of them network affiliates. The ratings, on average, were on par with a professional tennis match. Not particularly good, in other words.

CMN’s growth continues, although not at that pace. Nowadays they shoot the progams weeks before its air date and edit it into tight little 30-minute segments that are a little slick. They still get a pretty good mix of entertainers, although fewer A-listers than ever.

But it’s a very different show.

What changed?

The people for one thing.

Both of CMN’s founders… Mick Shannon and Joe Lake… have retired, although you could hire either of them for the right gig.

  1. There’s CMN alumni at U. S. Fund for UNICEF, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, and the National Forest Foundation.
  2. You can find them at children’s hospitals and in university development offices.
  3. One works for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign.
  4. Two are real estate developers.
  5. One co-founded another nonprofit.
  6. Another started an e-commerce company.
  7. One will work with you to book celebrities for your event or promotions.
  8. I consult and write this blog.
  9. Steve Williams died tragically of lung cancer just last year.
  10. And there are a lot of CMN ‘lifers’ who keep the fires burning bright.

Of course there have been broader structural changes, too.

  • In the U.S. the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates over-the-air broadcasters, loosened its requirements to air public-interest programming. The result was that fewer station felt like they had to carry a 21-hour telethon.
  • Likewise, rule changes at the FCC allowed broadcasters to own more stations, which led to widespread consolidation and, in turn, fewer locally-owned stations. That meant fewer owners who cared deeply about a local resource like a children’s hospital.
  • Plus, the cable companies expanded their reach to a larger portion of the U.S., leading to greater competition for the four main broadcast networks.
  • And, Americans found new diversions besides TV, including video games, DVDs and the Internet.

Like Chris Anderson wrote in The Long Tail, what we thought was brilliant television programming that united a country and a culture was in fact an inherit weakness in the distribution of television signals.

Now, of course, everyone with a camcorder can be a broadcaster.

But in a world of near infinite choice in television programming no one’s making a telethon like we used to. Including CMN.

Man how I miss the old Children’s Miracle Network Telethon.


Anonymous said…
Paul, I agree. The "telethon" did a much better job of telling the story of CMN member hospitals and recognizing sponsors than the current format. Thank you for this retrospective.
Paul,In researching telethons for CMN I came across your blog and I must admit I need hope but in reading this although am skeptical of doing our telethon will press forward for the good of the children. Our troupe is The Missouri Girls and consists of around 10 girls who are picked out of 35 who compete at Miss Missouri in talent. Our national and state platform collectively is CMN and would like to do a telethon to raise money. Are you saying that telethons are going downhill and we should consider other marketing to raise money. You can view my blog here:

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